Monday, October 21, 2013

An argument against having a casino in Springfield

The following was submitted to the LongmeadowBuzz blog by Michelle Steger, a resident of Longmeadow, MA.
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“Do you live within a few miles of the proposed casino site in Springfield, and could any roads in your town be used as a cut through to access the casino?”
Yes on both counts,” I replied to the woman working for the North Stonington, CT Select Board Office.  “Then your town will never be the same if the casino comes to Springfield.  It’s been so painful for us here,” she said.

My conversations with this woman and other town leaders who live in communities surrounding Foxwoods Casino in Connecticut have haunted me. 

I am not from around here.  I was born and raised in Dallas, Texas, but growing up, I always wanted to live in New England.  When I first visited Longmeadow, where my husband, Ted, grew up, I knew I had found my home.  We have been here for 5 years now, have a 1-year-old son, and could not be happier.  However, when we first heard that a casino might be placed 2.5 miles from our house, we wondered what impact that might have on the community we love so much. 

My husband and I are not experts, but we have been humbly asking questions and seeking answers for the last year, and the more we have learned about casinos and the way they operate, the more concerned we are about what a casino in the South End of Springfield would mean for Springfield, Longmeadow and other surrounding communities.  This concern has led us to join with other concerned citizens to form a group, No Casino Springfield (www.nocasinospringfield.com) that will be hosting a Call to Action on Wednesday October 23rd at 7PM at St. Andrew’s Church in Longmeadow.

Before we get too deep into the argument against having a casino in the area, we should probably set the stage to make clear where we are in the process.  Under the Massachusetts gaming law, a commission was formed called the Mass Gaming Commission (MGC), and it is made up of 5 people who are tasked with deciding which applicants will get a casino license in each of the 3 regions of the state.  In Western Mass, there are 2 contenders.

Springfield, which signed a host community agreement with MGM, held their referendum in July, and it passed 57-42.  Now that sounds like a big margin until you consider that Everett, MA passed their referendum 83-17.  And when you consider that MGM spent $12 million to try to win the vote, the fact that they could not even get to 60% tells us that there is not overwhelming support for a casino in Springfield, which is something that the MGC has said that they would like to see.

The town of Palmer has signed a host community agreement with Mohegan Sun, and they will hold their referendum on November 5th.

In the language of the MA Gaming Commission (MGC), the cities of Springfield and Palmer are host communities because the casinos will be located in those towns, and Longmeadow and other communities will be considered surrounding communities to Springfield.  In order to be a surrounding community, the chairman of the MGC has said that community would have to experience a "substantial negative impact” as a result of the casino.  The host community gets a direct vote, but the surrounding communities have also been asked by the MGC to give input.  They have said that the enthusiasm, or lack of enthusiasm, shown by the host community and surrounding communities will be taken into consideration when the MGC debates where to put the casino.

We have been encouraging people in the region to provide enthusiastic opposition to a casino in Springfield, and the citizens of Longmeadow have two ways to provide that input.
  1. Go to www.massgaming.com/contact and share your thoughts.
  2. Come to the Town Meeting on November 5th at the high school and vote to approve a resolution opposing a casino in Springfield.
So, I may not be from around here, but I want to do everything I can to keep my adopted home casino-free.  Below is a summary of some of the reasons and evidence for why I oppose a casino in Springfield, and why I hope you will join us in our efforts.

Traffic / OUI
  • Our roads are already congested and having a casino nearby would only stand to make things worse.
  • By state law, the casino will be allowed to serve FREE alcohol from 8AM to 2AM daily.  The town of Ledyard, CT which hosts Foxwoods casino has the highest rate of OUI accidents in the state of Connecticut.  Do we want more drunk and impaired drivers on our roads endangering our families and ourselves?
Economic Impact
  • Casinos can operate their entertainment, shops and restaurants at a loss in order to get as many people as possible to the casino, but this undercutting of prices will hurt local businesses and restaurants in Springfield, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow and other communities.
  • The only way for a casino to have a positive impact on a region is for most of the patrons to come from outside the region.  For a city like Springfield, there is very little likelihood that many people will come from more than a short drive away.  Therefore, people who live locally who would normally be spending money at other local businesses will instead go to the casino to spend their money. This will enrich the casino operator at the expense of our local economy.
  • Casinos reduce residential property values in surrounding areas, thus reducing town receipts, which may require tax increases to make up for the lost revenue. This would be especially painful for a bedroom community like Longmeadow that is dependent on strong residential property values to support town operations.  A National Association of Realtors study calls casinos effect on home values "unambiguously negative."  A 2009 study from the state of Connecticut found that property values along main arteries decreased by 10%.  One selectman we talked to in North Stonington, CT said that property values in his town have decreased 25% within a 1/4 mile of routes traveled to reach Foxwoods casino. 
 Social Costs
  • Approximately 1.5-2% of people nationally have a gambling problem. But, living within 50 miles of a casino doubles the number of addicted gamblers, and having a casino within 10 miles doubles the number again. So, if a casino is located in Springfield, between 6-8% of people living within 10 miles of the casino will have a gambling problem. There are currently 481,000 people living within 10 miles of the proposed MGM casino site, so that means somewhere between 18,000-28,000 additional people (not to mention the suffering of countless family members) in our communities will be plagued with a gambling problem if a casino were to come to Springfield.
Jobs
  • A 2005 Harvard study of jobs and casinos shows that, on average, the unemployment rate is unchanged after the introduction of a casino, which is partially due to the closing of businesses in the area that lose income because of the casino itself.
  • The number of people who will be harmed by the casino far outnumber the people who will be employed because of the casino.
Mitigation
  • The town on North Stonington, CT (population 5400, adjacent to Foxwoods) receives $880,000/year in mitigation funds, but one town selectman we spoke to says it is not nearly enough to cover the costs they incur because of the casino.
  • There are many hidden costs to a town (including impacts on school budgets, housing, tax base, quality of life, and character of the town) that cannot be accounted for by mitigation costs.
Long Term Prospects
  • The casino proponents have never pointed to a template of a successful casino city that Springfield is trying to emulate.  If casinos are so great for a city, why can’t they point to a city and region that has benefited from a casino in the long-term? Casinos may provide a brief economic boost, but the casino licenses that will be awarded in Massachusetts are for 75 years, so it is important to look at long-term impacts, and no city, excluding Las Vegas, has benefitted from casinos in the long run.
  • I want the best for Springfield and Longmeadow both today and for many years to come.  Any potential  short-term benefit would soon dissipate and be more than made up for by the costs that grow as the casino sucks more from our local economy and damages our local families. 
For more information, or if you’d like to get involved, feel free to contact us at nocasinospringfield@gmail.com.

Michelle Steger

Friday, August 30, 2013

Are you in favor of building a casino in Springfield?

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Update from the Select Board Chair, 7/22/13

The Longmeadow Select Board has begun its activities for the 2013-2014 year. I am honored to serve as Chair, and to work with Mark Gold, Paul Santaniello, Richard Foster, and Alex Grant.

I plan to regularly communicate with the readers in order to keep everyone abreast of the issues with which the Board is grappling. My hope is to keep our town well informed about the local issues we confront, and in turn I hope this leads to improved dialogue among all town residents.

During the Select Board meeting on July 15 the Audit Committee presented the independent auditor’s report for FY2012, and also presented an Other Post-employment Benefit (OPEB) Liability Study. Every year the Audit Committee tasks an outside auditor to review the books and systems employed by the Town of Longmeadow. The committee works with the auditor and town staff to complete the audit, present the report, and make recommended changes. Not every town has an Audit Committee and the Longmeadow Audit Committee is a valuable asset to the town.

The Audit Report praised not only the methods employed by the town, but also the Town Balance Sheet.  Our bond rating is the highest available to a municipality of our make- up. The report did note the town was running on the high end for unrestricted fund balance (free cash and stabilization funds).  However, the fund balances remain in an acceptable range. I would like to think these results demonstrate the hard work of our staff in keeping projects under budget and to successfully increase revenue. The Town Manager is tasked with monitoring the project estimates in the future.

The Auditor ended the report with a cautionary note on our unfunded OPEB liability. This is our obligation to pay for retiree health insurance costs.  Unlike other towns in our region, we still have a positive balance in our unrestricted net assets in regards to this obligation.  However, we will be in the red next year. The auditor praised our willingness to address the problem with establishment of a line item for OPEB obligations in the budget. We are ahead of most towns in Massachusetts in addressing the problem.  He stated it is unlikely that funding in the budget alone will cover the unfunded liability accumulated each year.

The auditor’s report was followed by an actuary’s report on our OPEB obligation. This study is a compliance requirement of the Governmental Accounting Standards Board.  The actuary indicated that the town will fall behind next year in funding the problem. He calculated our current obligation to be 38 million dollars. This report only accounts for current employees and assumes no increase in hiring.

The presenter stated this problem is shared by all towns and municipalities in Massachusetts and throughout the country. In his view we need to look not just at funding, but also at benefit and plan changes.  If changes do not occur we will not be able to pay for retiree health costs in the future without drastic reductions in other expenditures.  He did not project when we would not be able to fulfill our obligations. We are “paying as we go”, but the increase in numbers of retirees and increases in health insurance costs will keep mounting.

Obviously, our problem with OPEB liability is an issue the Select Board will be addressing repeatedly in the future. This is a complex issue that will require commitment and work on the local level as well as on Beacon Hill. Both the audit study and the OPEB study are available for your viewing on longmeadow.org.  Your comments and views on this matter are invaluable in helping to guide us.

Marie Angelides
Chair of Longmeadow Select Board

Monday, July 1, 2013

Enfield Development To Have Little Impact on Longmeadow

The following LTE written by Elayne Eyan is in response to last week's article in The Reminder entitled Enfield Development To Have Little Impact on Longmeadow
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Mayfield Road Project Plan (click image to enlarge)
To the Editor:

Contrary to The Reminder's recent article, the proposed development on Mayfield Road in Enfield, CT WILL have a huge impact on Longmeadow, particularly to the residents on Shaker and Maple Roads.  The article quotes Longmeadow Planning Chair Walter Gunn saying he saw "no impact on Longmeadow residents" from this project.  But what the headline doesn't point out is that, when interviewed for the article, Mr. Gunn stated he had "not heard specifically about this proposal".

Since Mr. Gunn had not yet heard about the proposal, we must assume he did not know the plans include 34 separate apartment buildings, with 10 units in each, housing between 600 and 1000 people.  He would also not have seen the study which shows 70% of the cars leaving the development will turn north, directly into the intersection of Maple Road/Shaker Road in Longmeadow.. Most of these cars will continue west on Maple Road to Longmeadow Street, adding hundreds of cars to this residential neighborhood during commute times.  I would like to hear Mr. Gunn's opinion of this project once he has had a chance to review the plans for this inordinately large complex, "by far the largest in the area" according to your article, which will directly impact all residents of Longmeadow's Maple Road, not just the abutters of this large development.

I would also like to point out that this proposed development is apartment rental units and bears little resemblance to the small condo developments mentioned in the article.   

The Enfield Planning and Zoning Commission has not yet approved the required special permit for the Mayfield development.  The public hearing for the permit has been continued until their July 11th meeting.  Anyone from the public may go to the meeting to express their concerns, or may submit letters to the Commission prior to July 11th, if they are unable to attend.

I'm all for the improvement of this neglected piece of land.  But an over-sized development that exports its traffic problems directly into our neighborhood, is not an improvement to Longmeadow.

Elayne Ayan
(875 Maple Road, Longmeadow, MA 01106)

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Longmeadow voters…. let’s not "bullet vote"


Bullet voting is a tactic in which the voter only selects one candidate, despite the option to vote for a second candidate.  Candidates may encourage bullet voting by their supporters.

One example is where there is an election for two seats of the same office, and there are several candidates (say A, B, and C).  The upcoming Select Board election on Tuesday is a good example.


Voters in such a situation have two votes. Candidate A encourages his voters to vote only for him and not use their second vote. If the second vote is cast for B or C, it helps A's opponents. If supporters for B and C vote for them, while A's supporters cast one vote for A and split their second vote between B and C, A is significantly disadvantaged.

If enough voters bullet vote, almost any voting system functions like a plurality voting system which is generally considered a poor result.

Longmeadow voters…. get to the polls on Tuesday but let’s not bullet vote.

We need to elect the two best qualified candidates for Select Board in this upcoming election.

[some excerpts from Wikipedia were used in the above commentary]

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Time For Change by Alex Grant

             In the past few months, I have spoken to many Longmeadow town residents with differing political philosophies, people with differing views about the role of government, about the appropriate level of taxation, and about how to prioritize the needs of today and the needs of tomorrow.  Many of these people would seldom agree on matters of town politics, or even of state or national politics.  But these same people have consistently said that Longmeadow needs change on the Select Board.

            Over the past year, town residents have seen a town manager search that started too slowly and took too long; the result was that it took 18 months to replace Robin Crosbie after she gave her notice.  The vacancy for the director of Adult Center was not posted for five months, and that position went unfilled for most of the year.  The Maple Road paving project started too late, it took too long, and the result was a big mess and wasted tax dollars.  And the year culminated with the overwhelming rejection of the Select Board's budget at Town Meeting.

            If that track record counts as success, then town residents would hate to see failure.  The current lineup on the Select Board is out of step with what the people of Longmeadow want to see in their town government.  The dysfunction on the Select Board can be traced to the disconnect that exists between the voters and the board. 

            A symptom of that disconnect is the overwhelming percentage of men–80%–on our appointed boards.  The Finance Committee has no female members, and it hasn't included a woman since 2009.  We are clearly not utilizing all of the talent that exists in Longmeadow.  If elected, I will have no higher priority than to reach out to talented people who have not served before to fill the vacancies that exist on our appointed boards.

            Keeping the same group in power in times of good performance and bad means that we keep having the same conversations over and over.  The same issues repeat.  Politicians try to divide residents over town vs. school.  We hear clarion calls of crisis over the state of the town's infrastructure by the same politicians who presided over the making of that crisis.  We hear startling figures of $140 million and $180 million for capital spending, and there is no long term capital plan, and apparently, no desire to produce one.

            It is said that the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result.  If we return the same group on the Select Board, if we maintain the status quo, we can expect the same conversations during the next year, and we can expect the same results.

            Some of the dysfunction on the Select Board can be traced simply to rigidity.  What sense did it make to only make appointments once per year when there were both qualified and interested applicants and vacancies at other times of the year?  What sense did it make for the Select Board to meet this year on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, a step strongly discouraged by the Attorney General in her guidance on the state's open meeting laws?  What sense did it make to not televise many of the meetings?

            In my professional life, I have worked at a corporate law firm in Boston, and I have been a federal prosecutor for nearly 15 years both here and in Washington, DC.  I can recognize when government is working well and when it is not.  I also understand the meaning of public service.  A member of the Select Board, above all, serves the public.  Questions, comments, and concerns from town residents are not impediments to getting things done on the Select Board.  The input of town residents is not an annoyance.  That interaction is an essential part of the job, and indeed, the most important part of the job.

            The Select Board cannot, under our Town Charter, go it alone.  Our form of direct democracy requires engagement with voters because they have the final say.  The Select Board also needs to work collaboratively with the School Committee and our other boards, just as our interim town manager suggested we should do in coming up with a capital plan. 


            The genius of our form of government is its capacity for change.  We are not doomed to stagnation because the opportunity for new ideas and fresh perspectives exists so long as we have elections and people are willing to serve.  I am willing to serve, and I am ready to listen and to communicate with voters in a way that no Select Board member has done in the recent past.  Together we can make a change on June 11.

My email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com.

Friday, June 7, 2013

Mark Gold Asks For Your Vote on Election Day




The following letter to the editor was submitted by Mark Gold, current member of the Longmeadow Select Board to the Longmeadow Buzz blog and Longmeadow News for publication this week.



                                                                    
                                             June 6, 2013
Dear Neighbor,                                                                                    

I have been privileged to serve on the Longmeadow Select Board for the past four years.  During that time we have accomplished much, but there is work that remains to be done and I am again asking for your vote so that I may continue to serve the Town as a member of your Select Board.

In each of the past four years I have been instrumental in the preparation of the town budget – balanced budgets that have maintained the level of services that town residents have come to expect, while at the same time keeping our tax rate within the limits of proposition 2 ½ . As I promised when I ran for this position, I have come to each meeting prepared and having done my homework, bringing a common sense approach to resolving the town’s issues.  I have initiated compromises when I felt they were necessary yet was not afraid to assert my position when that made the most sense.

I am proud of my contributions to the town these past four years, not just in the role I played in four consecutive quality budgets, but in many other specific activities, including the following:
  • Setting a payment schedule for the $44 million in high school bonds that minimizes their tax impact
  • Identifying and implementing an energy conservation and electric bill reduction program for the town buildings funded by utility grants and interest-free loans
  • Leading our October, 2011 storm recovery effort
  • Negotiating a six figure reduction in the purchase price of replacement water meters.
  • Initiating and passing the optional meals tax that will provide an estimated $80,000 in added town revenue each year.
  • Leading the negotiation process that brought about a compromise with the school department resulting in the budget approved at this year’s annual town meeting.
Despite these successes, there is much more to do.  Chief among my goals remains the implementation of new cost saving and revenue generating programs for the community.  The values that Longmeadow residents continue to express require that town expenses be able to grow beyond the constraints of property tax revenues.  By seeking new revenue sources that are consistent with the character and priorities of the town, we can continue to fund the programs and services that are important to all our residents while minimizing tax increases.

To provide the balance that I believe we all realize is necessary to this town, I ask for your vote on June 11, 2013.

                                                                                                Sincerely,

                                                                                                Mark Gold 

Monday, June 3, 2013

Watch the May 29 Select Board Debate

Watch the May 29 Select Board Debate here and decide for yourself whether it is time for change on the Select Board.

Sunday, June 2, 2013

To the Citizens of Longmeadow

The following article was submitted by Mark Gold, incumbent candidate for re-election to the Longmeadow Select Board in the upcoming Annual Town Elections (June 11) to the Longmeadow Buzz blog and Longmeadow News.
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Dear Longmeadow Neighbor,

I am writing this open letter to the citizens of Longmeadow asking for each of your votes in the June 11, 2013 Longmeadow Select Board election.  I am asking for your vote based on my four year track record of achievement for the town of Longmeadow – a record that has demonstrated that I am making balanced and appropriate decisions on behalf of the entire population. 

Back in 2007 our town residents passed a proposition 2-1/2 over-ride by 7 votes.  At the time, town residents were told that the over-ride was designed to last 3 years at which time we would likely need another.  The budget we just passed at this month’s town meeting was our 8thsince that over-ride – and I’ve played a major role in each of the last four budgets.   I believe that fiscal responsibility is a key characteristic that most citizens want in a Select Board member, and our ability to run the town within the proposition 2-1/2 limit for the past eight years has shown that I have that ability.  Most importantly, this budgeting was done with NO impact on town services or school programs.  This year I was the force leading the compromise with the School Department that showed them why we really needed only $353,000 to achieve the educational goals they sought, not their original requested $750,000.  Did I cut the school budget – NO – I increased it by $353,000!  In the budget negotiations with the School Committee I pointed out, for example, that they should BUDGET for the teachers who would be retiring and replaced with teachers at a lower salary step – change that allowed us to reduce their originally requested budget salary line item by $160,000 to reflect those retirements.  Working with the school committee we found $400,000 in reductions to the original school budget that we could all live with that didn't cut educational excellence.

During my four years as a member of the Select Board I’ve also pushed for other financial benefits for the town to reduce our dependence on real estate tax revenue.  I got the local meals tax before town meeting.  The revenue from this tax will raise $80,000 for the town.  I negotiated contracts with vendors that saved hundreds of thousands of dollars for the town.  But my achievements go beyond just financial.  The leadership I showed during the October, 2011 storm recovery, the leadership in behind the scenes labor negotiations, and the BALANCE I have brought to the deliberations of the Select Board and the discussions between the Select Board and the School committee have truly been positive for the town.

Moving forward, I have ideas that will continue to further the programs that the citizens of Longmeadow generally support.   There’s no reason why we can’t have a town-wide wireless internet system.  Residents could cut their Comcast internet bills, use their smart phones on Wi-Fi settings throughout town to save on phone bills, all while the town gets a share of the proceeds.  Such town-wide WiFi systems are being installed all over the country, and we can have this system in Longmeadow.  We can purchase our street lights from WMECo and save as much as half of the $750,000 per year we spend in rental and lighting costs.  We can upgrade our roads and sidewalks.  I’ve expressed these very concrete (pardon the pun) proposals that will continue to move the town forward in a fiscally responsible manner while maintaining the character of the town that drew most residents here in the first place.

So, it is based on these specific examples of achievement and forward thinking that I ask for your vote on June 11th.  I have a demonstrated record of service to the town for over fourteen years that shows that the residents of Longmeadow can expect this level of dedication and achievement to continue through my next term on the Select Board.

I would leave you with this thought:  There’s nothing broken about the town of Longmeadow and how it’s operating.  Certainly things can always be better, and I plan on continuing our progress for the next three years.  I plan on achieving that progress from a position of understanding, experience, and demonstrated performance.   

I would ask for your vote on June 11th and the vote of your friends and family.

Warmest Regards,
Mark Gold

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Is our Town Meeting form of government broken?

This year's Annual Town Meeting (ATM) was held on May 7 in the gymnasium of the new Longmeadow High School.  Having attended many town meetings during the past 33 years that I have lived in town I was amazed to see a new dynamic in play at this last meeting.  It seems that the pro-school coalition- a well organized group with an ability to fill any town meeting venue using social media and with direct ties to the School Committee (SC) was determined to increase school department spending in direct opposition to the Select Board (SB) and Finance Committee (FC) recommendations.

A large contingent of town voters came to this town meeting for one vote only- Article 6, to increase the School Department's FY2014 budget by $353,000. (If you doubt that this was the case, watch the end of the video clip below to see 40-50% of the meeting attendees leave after this vote.)

Background Information
Prior to the town meeting there had been many discussions between the SB and the SC regarding the level of FY2014 funding for the Longmeadow School Department.  The FY2014 budget guideline established by the SB for all town departments including the School Department was for a 0% increase vs. the current FY2013 budget.

All town departments except the School Department submitted budgets with 0% increases.  The SC approved an increase of $706K citing significant effects on Longmeadow education if they were forced to accept a 0% increase.  A compromise budget increase of $353K developed by a joint SC/SB committee failed to gain approval by the full SB.

SC members + a large contingent of pro-school advocates rallied their forces and showed up at the May 7 ATM in order to move forward an amendment to increase the SB recommended FY14 School Dept. budget.

Article #6 involved the FY2014 budget and was an important article on the 2013 ATM warrant.  In the video clip below showing key portions of the ATM (courtesy of LCTV) you will see three different amendments proposed for Article #6.
  1. Addition of $353K as recommended by the joint SB/SC compromise committee and supported by the SC (proposed by Michael Clark, chairman of the Longmeadow School Committee)
  2. Addition of $706K to the FY14 school dept budget (proposed by Jessica Hutchins, town meeting member)
  3. Addition of $2.5 million to the FY14 school dept budget (proposed by David Gustafson, town meeting member)

Mr. Gustafson's secondary amendment to Article #6 was obviously done to highlight the potential jeopardy of the process for town meeting members to make proposals without due diligence.  SB Vice-Chair Mark Gold also pointed out that approval of amendment #2 (increase by $706K) would be an irresponsible action by the Town Meeting without having identified funding sources first and could lead to some dire consequences with other portions of the town budget.

I believe that if SC Chair Michael Clark had not pushed back on the need for the $706K amendment, town meeting members would have approved it.

In the end, the School Dept budget for FY14 was increased by $353K.

Bottom line:
Now that this pro-school special interest group has been successful, it may be emboldened to do more.  Don't be surprised to see another attempt to increase school funding at a future town meeting- particularly a fall town meeting when fewer people are in attendance.

Voters looking to see that there is balanced spending of their tax dollars between schools and everything else better paid heed to what is happening at town meetings. Better still, they should attend them rather than watching the meetings on LCTV.

Sunday, May 26, 2013

A Poor Case for a Mayor

            Winston Churchill once said, "democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time."  And so it may be said of our direct democracy, the Town Meeting form of government rooted in the very founding of this town.

            In a May 19 interview on LCTV, Select Board member Mark Barowsky put forth a different idea, a mayoral form of government in order to put an end to Town Meeting.  He further stated he wanted to put the School Committee under the mayor.  By changing our form of government, this idea would concentrate power in the hands of a single individual, with the Select Board essentially becoming like a city council.  The town manager would be gone.  The mayor, armed with a bare majority on the Select Board, could re-make the town every few years, with the voters having no direct say over anything.

            This call for an elected mayor comes on the heels of the voters' overwhelming rejection of the Select Board's annual budget at Town Meeting.  This call for a subservient school committee comes at a time when it is clear that the elected representatives of the School Committee have minds of their own, and that they are prepared to make their case to the voters, and not just to three members of the Select Board.

            Barowsky's idea does address the momentary political problem of the voters exercising autonomous will and not following the policies favored by Barowsky.  Putting the School Committee to heel under a mayor would also solve the problem of that pesky board trying to stop cuts that would increase class sizes and diminish the quality of education in Longmeadow's schools.  These benefits are, at best, dubious.  The costs of that kind of change to our town charter, on that other hand, are fundamental.

            In 1774, the tradition of town meetings was considered so sacred that Parliament's act of forbidding them within Massachusetts (part of the "Intolerable Acts") helped lead to the American Revolution.  That act is even referenced in the Declaration of Independence as one of the grievances that justified separation from England.

            To be sure, times and circumstances change, and Town Meeting democracy has been abolished in large cities in New England.  And it never took hold in the same way in the South and the West the way it did here in New England.  But a tradition as longlasting as our form of town government does deserve respect, having proven its worth in different eras and in crises more grave than any problem currently facing Longmeadow.

            More problematic is the notion that we must take power away from the people because the people cannot be trusted to make decisions on matters of the town budget and taxation.  It is certainly true that voters do sometimes make bad decisions, but there is no greater discipline than having to live with one’s own decisions.  Town Meeting has its faults, but there are ways to make its deliberations most robust and more meaningful.  Democracy is, and ever will be, an imperfection. 

              The alternative form of government, one with a strong mayor, is not better, as it depends on the strengths and frailties of a single human being, rather than the checks and balances contained in our town charter.  A mayor, as Holyoke learned, can reverse course on an important issue like casinos, and suddenly, a casino is on the table.  And who exactly would be this mayor?  Is there any town politician in recent memory whose wisdom and judgment was so esteemed that he or she would be worthy of such a powerful office?  If none comes to mind, then this mayor idea should give town residents pause.

            The experience of our larger neighbors in western Massachusetts proves that mayors can be a hit-or-miss proposition.  A recent mayor of Agawam made more headlines for extra-matrimonial scuffles than for forward-thinking policies.  A single bad Select Board member can do little lasting damage. 

            A strong mayor with a school committee in his or her back pocket is an extreme solution for extreme problems, like when Chicago turned to Richard Daley as its savior.  Taking such an exceptional step, and in the process, overturning centuries of political experience, is hardly warranted for losing a vote on a town budget. 

Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow.  His email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com.

Thursday, May 23, 2013

The True Cost of Quality Education in Longmeadow

At the Annual Town Meeting earlier this month there was significant debate about the Select Board approved cuts of $726K from the School Dept FY2014 proposed budget. School Superintendent Marie Doyle armed with charts and other information described how the budget as approved by the Select Board was going to have a significant effect on the quality of education in Longmeadow.  Article #6- the FY14 budget was then amended by the Town Meeting members to provide for an additional $353K of funding.  I spoke during the debate on this amendment so I thought that it would be worthwhile to share my comments with other town residents who may not have attended this meeting.  Below is a video excerpt of my remarks (courtesy of LCTV) with the cited tables inserted.

 
As mentioned in the above video, there are significant school related line items in the overall budget that are not usually considered when the School Dept budget is being reviewed.  These items include School Dept Employee + Retiree Benefits (including Health Care, Insurance, etc.) and Debt Service (Interest + Principal repayment on school project bonds).  As you can see from Table I below the cost of these items is not trivial.
Table I- The Total Cost of Delivering a Quality Education
-click to enlarge table-
During the past two years, the total cost of delivering a quality education in Longmeadow has increased by $4.8 million or 13.2%- a large portion of this increase is the debt service for our new high school.  Given that the School Maintenance is not listed here but is included within the Town Govt budget, the true cost of delivering a quality education in Longmeadow is even higher than that shown in Table I.

I get a little annoyed when I hear a town resident or a member of the School Committee claim that the town and many of its residents do not support its schools.  Our property taxes which can be seen in the chart below have increased significantly over the past two years primarily because of the new high school construction and increases in the cost of education. (Read an earlier Longmeadow Buzz blog post for additional information on property taxes.)

Table II- Longmeadow Property Taxes
-click to enlarge chart-



Over the next ten years, this recent increase in total education costs will translate to almost $50 million in taxpayer money.

With all of the pressing infrastructure needs of our town ranging from streets/sidewalks to a new DPW facility and middle school renovation/new building, our school department needs to find a way to reduce the cost of delivering their services.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Yes, Mr. Grant there is a capital plan!

At the recent Town Meeting Alex Grant criticized the Select Board for not having a "capital plan" for improvement of the town's infrastructure.  Furthermore, he stated that without a capital plan the town was wasting money including projects like the Maple Road water and sewer repairs.



Paul Santaniello, current chairman of the Longmeadow Select Board responded to this criticism by Alex Grant at the Select Board meeting earlier this week.  He stated that the Town of Longmeadow does have a capital plan for infrastructure improvements including both town and school department needs.  It is a "rolling" 5 year plan which is updated annually.  The Maple Road project was on the list but because of funding considerations, the long overdue improvements were not initiated until last fall. 



Stephen Crane, the new Town Manager for Longmeadow took the opportunity during the Town Meeting to state that the interim town manager (Mr. Barry Del Castilho) was incorrect when he stated that there was no capital fund.  It is true that the town lacks a capital funding plan.


For those people who are reading this blog post and are interested in seeing the details of the Capital Plan, here are the links:


Mr. Grant.... it is time to move on to other issues.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Budgeting Vision and Opportunities


The following article was submitted by Mark Gold,
current member of the Longmeadow Select Board to the Longmeadow Buzz blog and Longmeadow News for publication this week.

 
___________________________________________________

The development of the 2014 town budget demonstrated the limitations imposed on a fully “built-out” town like Longmeadow.  With property tax increases limited to 2-1/2% year over year, most cities and towns in the Commonwealth turn to new growth, the development of previously vacant properties, to provide the funds needed to sustain their government’s budget.  In the 1980’s Longmeadow garnered additional tax revenue from the development of Williamsburg Drive, in the 1990’s it was from Jonquil Lane and in the 2000’s Pendleton Lane.  With no new housing tracts available for development, for the past seven years Longmeadow has found itself in the dilemma of revenue increases being limited by proposition 2-1/2.  But this perceived reliance on real estate tax revenues need not restrict our ability to fund capital needs, wage and salary increase, and new service initiatives within Longmeadow.

Since being elected to the Select Board in 2009, I have focused on both reducing costs and identifying new sources of income (to offset the loss of new growth income).  On the income side, I initiated the town’s adoption the optional state meals tax that will provide as much as $80,000 a year in new revenue to the town.  On the expense side, I negotiated a lower rate on the trash pick-up program, worked with the town CFO to secure low cost electrical rates for town buildings, saved over $100,000 on the purchase of replacement water meters, and secured a grant from WMECo that installed energy efficient lighting throughout town buildings, a project that will save the town tens of thousands of dollars each year.  Our budget dollars are going further than ever – one of the main reasons why the Town is now seven years into the 2007 Proposition 2-1/2 over-ride that was designed to provide revenue for a balanced budget for three years.

There are ideas for increased revenue and cost savings items that have yet to be pursued.  The Select Board is examining opportunities for purchasing the street lights which are all currently leased, and following that purchase with the installation of high efficiency lighting to lower operating costs.  Opportunities exist for providing town residents with added services, such as wireless internet, which can provide income to the town while saving residents in their monthly payments for high speed internet and smart phone data plans.  Although our first attempt at placing a solar energy facility on our town landfill was deferred due to its marginal economics, changing solar economics may yet provide benefit the town from the installation of a passive renewable energy system on the roof of a town building or elsewhere.  It’s not farfetched to imagine that one day a community based solar facility will provide low cost electricity to power the homes and vehicles of town residents.

Our ability to provide the services all our citizens want at a tax rate that all our citizens can afford is an achievable goal.  With vision and follow-through we can affordably provide the funds the town needs and the services town residents want.  For the past four years, working with the Select Board for the citizens of Longmeadow, I have shown that vision and follow-through.  Much progress has been achieved but there is much more that is possible.

I ask for your vote on June 11th so that I can continue to work for the residents of this town to address the issues that will retain the character and community that drew each of us to Longmeadow

Mark Gold

Select Board Candidates at Long Meddowe Days

Longmeadow Community TV provided a LIVE opportunity during last weekend's Long Meddowe Days for the 3 candidates for Select Board (Mark Gold, Mark Barowsky and Alex Grant) to address the voters of Longmeadow.  Below are the taped interviews for each of the three candidates courtesy of LCTV.

Annual Town Election Day is Tuesday, June 11





Friday, May 17, 2013

PRESS RELEASE: ALEX GRANT ANNOUNCES RUN FOR LONGMEADOW SELECT BOARD


ALEX GRANT, after writing a bi-weekly column for the Longmeadow News on town issues since 2007, announces that he is running for one of the two open seats on the Longmeadow Select Board.  The election is June 11.

            The announcement comes a few days after the annual Longmeadow Town Meeting, in which the Select Board’s proposed annual budget was defeated.  GRANT spoke at Town Meeting in favor of a compromise budget that restored some of the cuts to the School Department.  The cuts advanced by the Select Board would have decimated the renowned Longmeadow music department, led to layoffs of teachers, and increased class sizes.

            GRANT stated at Town Meeting, “I wish we could send the Select Board back to the drawing board” on the budget.  He noted that the Select Board budget’s across-the-board cuts in services also hurt seniors in town.

            GRANT criticized the Select Board’s policy of taking money from needed town services to put the funds into capital spending at a time when there is no capital plan.  Despite the claims of the Select Board and the Town Manager to the contrary, GRANT quoted the interim town manager at the March 6, 2013 budget forum as saying, “There is no capital plan, there should be, there needs to be, it would be better if the capital recommendations for FY 14 were in the context of a capital plan.”  GRANT asked that anyone doubting his recitation of the facts to view the DVD recording of the budget forum, read the news story in The Reminder, or to go to his website www.AlexGrantLongmeadow.org to see for themselves the statements from the budget forum.

The compromise budget supported by GRANT, the School Committee, and two members of the Select Board passed overwhelmingly.  GRANT said that the Town Meeting result shows that the Select Board is out of step with the voters and that change is needed.

            GRANT, who works as a federal prosecutor, also coaches youth soccer, basketball, and track in Longmeadow.  GRANT is a graduate of Stanford University and Cornell Law School.

            In making the announcement, GRANT said, “I am running to open up our town government by writing about it, by telling residents what really goes on at the Select Board, and by listening to residents more than the Select Board does now.  In recent years, town politics has been a conversation involving a fairly small number of people, and that needs to change.  We need to engage a larger number of voters if Longmeadow is going to move forward and be a great place to live for people of all ages.”

            GRANT reminded residents that the passage of the compromise budget was a limited victory that merely mitigated the cuts to services contemplated by the Select Board budget.  The budget passed was still closer to the 0% Select Board approach than to maintaining level services.  GRANT does not want to see the quality of life in Longmeadow diminished.

GRANT said, “If you want to have a shot at avoiding these same kinds of cuts to services next year, you need to vote on June 11 to change the lineup on the Select Board. Otherwise, we will be having the same conversation next year. The choice between the two incumbents and me for the two open seats is clear.”

            Voters will have a chance to visit GRANT’s booth and meet the candidate in person at Longmeaddowe Days on May 18 and 19.

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Funding Capital Needs

 
The following article was submitted by Mark Gold,
current member of the Longmeadow Select Board to the Longmeadow Buzz blog and Longmeadow News for publication this week.
___________________________________________________

Longmeadow’s Town meeting was held last week – and the proceedings of that meeting are reported elsewhere in this newspaper.   From the front of the room, the vista was amazingly positive; hundreds of town residents had come out of their homes on a beautiful spring evening to perform the duties of the legislative branch of town government.  At the meeting, as part of the continued discussion on renewing the infrastructure of the town, citizens approved over $5,000,000 in funding for capital expenditures, authorizing the use of funds from the operating budget, stabilization funds, and the issuance of bonds to begin work on the backlog of over $140 million in capital projects that have been identified for our roads, sidewalks, storm water outfalls, drinking water, and sewage systems.   $2,200,000 of these expended funds is derived from water and sewer fees or designated state aid, but $2.8 million is primarily paid through property taxes.  If we are to continue to maintain the town’s infrastructure, as we must, and continue to support the operations of the town’s general government services and schools as we want, we must find a way to fund capital improvements that provides the necessary millions of dollars in needed financing while continuing to provide funds for general government and school operations.   I believe that this balanced approach to funding both capital and operating expenses can be met.

Beginning when I was chair, the capital planning committee has recommended each year that that capital funds be increased above their current level of 2% of property tax revenue.  For the past two years, the Finance Committee has echoed that request.  By ramping up Longmeadow’s commitment to capital from 2% to 2.5% over five years, and dedicating those increases to capital improvement bonds, Longmeadow can make available approximately $4.5 million of additionally needed funds to address the most pressing of our capital needs (see chart below).   This gradual increase in the capital allocation would require only $50,000 of each year’s allowable increase under the Proposition 2 ½ levy limit, leaving over $1.1 million in increased revenue to support the growth of the overall town budget and, equally as important, not impact the funds available to purchase plows, equipment and other non- infrastructure capital needs.  Our infrastructure was built over many decades and this balanced approach provides the added funds to begin to address these needs without having to make unacceptable cuts to the town’s operating budget.

click chart to enlarge
This proposed approach to funding our infrastructure needs mirrors the structure adopted by the Town for funding new fire trucks.  Prior to the creation of our fire truck replacement fund, the purchase of a fire truck was a major expenditure that required offsetting cuts elsewhere in either the operating budget (to pay for a bond) or the capital budget (precluding the purchase of other capital items).   In place since I recommended it during my tenure as chair of the capital planning committee, an annual payment into the fire truck fund has been integrated into Longmeadow’s capital plan, and has provided funds to pay for two new fire vehicles with minimal impact on either operating budgets or other capital expenditures.

Longmeadow’s capital infrastructure needs must be addressed.  By gradually increasing, and allocating that increased portion of our capital budget to infrastructure repairs, the Town of Longmeadow can adopt a balanced approach to funding the capital AND operating needs of the town.  This proposal is but one of the ways in which I hope to continue to bring to the voters of Longmeadow a balanced approach to town government. 

For more information about how we can address the financial needs of the town, visit my website www.GoldForSelectboard.com.

Mark Gold

Monday, May 13, 2013

We Deserved a Vote


At the May 7 Town Meeting, there was a warrant article that should have been on the docket, that should have been voted on, and that deserved passage.  It was an article that had been part of an earlier draft of the warrant, and then it was removed through an improvident 3-2 vote by the Select Board.  It was an article that could have made a difference to hundreds of youth and adults.  The article was the Community Preservation Committee's (CPC) proposal to repair and improve the Wolf Swamp fields.

The absence of the Wolf Swamp fields project on the Town Meeting warrant was a missed opportunity that reflects a lack of regard for the work done by the CPC and the Parks Board, which had carefully considered the proposal.  Its absence on the warrant also reflects, shall we say, an overabundance of confidence that the three Select Board members held in their own judgment and wisdom.  That confidence propelled the Select Board majority to substitute its opinion for the assessments of a greater number of folks who had spent more time studying the subject.

The Wolf Swamp fields badly need repair, and their use needs to be re-oriented to sports like Lacrosse and Soccer, where interest is intense, and so part of the proposal was to fill in two ball diamonds in favor of more field space.  To accomplish this, the project required $96,000, and the money was to have been derived from Community Preservation Act (CPA) funds, which allows the town to receive a 26% match from the state, which is about the best deal in municipal finance.

So how can a project with unquestioned merit and which makes fiscal sense go down to defeat?  Or more precisely, how can such a project be kept from the voters at Town Meeting?  The CPC voted unanimously, 9-0, to approve this project.  Other CPA projects were rejected, tabled, or failed to pass so overwhelmingly.  The CPC included people with histories of long service to the town, such as Gerald Nolet, Arlene Miller, and James Goodhines.  This group was not apt to venture out on poorly designed schemes.  It was certainly a group that would not agree on every town issue, but it could agree on this.

The Select Board has many other things to do besides second-guessing the layout of sports fields and the angles at which lacrosse balls may be flung.  The objections raised by the members who voted to kill the warrant article showed no deference to the review done by the many people who have given a lot of thought on how best to use the town's resources for recreation and sport.

One Select Board member suggested that still more review should be done by the Planning Board and by the Town safety committee.  After input by the Parks Board, a vote by nine members of the CPC, review by the Select Board, and a vote by residents at Town Meeting, this process hardly cried out for more bureaucracy.  As Mr. Goodhines noted, the need had been identified for several years, and the project was advanced after receiving feedback from the community.

The shame in all of this is that the voters were denied a chance to have their voices heard.  Was this idea so dangerous that the people could not be trusted to vote on it?  While it was within the power of the Select Board to eliminate this article, surely that power must be tempered by a decent respect for the opinions of the constituents who conferred that power by electing the members of the Select Board.  Was it not possible that the voters, had they approved the article, were right, and the three members of the Select Board wrong?

At worst, the Wolf Swamp fields project was a matter on which reasonable minds could differ.  Then why not allow our direct democracy to work?  Why not allow the clash of ideas, the questions and answers, and the discussion on the floor of Town Meeting to illuminate the best path forward?  Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. once said that "the best test of truth is the power of the thought to get itself accepted in the competition of the market."  That competition was overridden in this instance, but in our system, the debate never ceases, and this question will arise again, and the expression of the views of the electorate cannot be silenced forever.

Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow.  His email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com.

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

There is Another Important Vote on June 11

I was inspired to see the support last night for the compromise budget, but we should remember that this was a limited victory and merely mitigated the cuts to services contemplated by the Select Board budget. All told, the budget passed still was closer to the 0% SB approach than to maintaining level services. If you want to have a shot at avoiding these same kinds of cuts to services next year, you need to vote on June 11 to change the lineup on the Select Board. Otherwise, we'll be having the same conversation next year. The choice between me, and the two incumbents, Mark Gold and Mark Barowsky, for the two open seats is clear.

Friday, May 3, 2013

Annual Town Meeting- Article #26

Below is Article #26 that is printed in the warrant for the Annual Town Meeting:

Article 26: To see if the Town will vote to amend the Zoning Bylaw of the Town regarding dimensional requirements and fencing applicable to corner lots, or take any other action relative thereto.

I knew that this warrant article was related to a revision of the zoning bylaw governing "corner lots" but given this limited text I wanted to know more.  At a boisterous Special Town Meeting last October, Planning Board Chair, Walter Gunn promised to have a revised zoning bylaw on the warrant at the next Annual Town Meeting which is scheduled for next Tuesday. (See earlier Buzz post- What's Happening with Corner Lots? for background information.)

It turns out that the specific bylaw changes were not completed when the warrant was published and not finalized until earlier this week.  Below is the lengthy amendment that will be proposed on the floor of the Annual Town Meeting on Tuesday for consideration by voters ...

Move: To amend the zoning by-laws of the Town as follows:
  1. Add a definition of “Front Lot Line” in Article II as follows:
    “Front Lot Line.” The front lot line for each lot shall be the street line opposite the rear lot line.
  2. Add a definition of “Side Lot Line” in Article II as follows:
    “Side Lot Line.” Each lot line that is neither a front nor a rear lot line.
  3. Amend the definition of “Rear Lot Line” in Article II as follows:
    “Rear Lot Line.” A rear lot line is a lot line opposite to the street line. In case of a corner or through lot, the owner may designate which line will be the rear lot line, provided his choice does not involve a violation of any of the provisions of this By-law. In the case of a corner lot where the side lot lines are curved or angled or joined by a tertiary line or curve, the BuildingCommissioner shall designate the extent of the rear lot line.  
click here to read full three page amendment 
___________________________________________

In order to find out more about this controversial subject I attended a Planning Board public hearing on May 1 regarding the proposed bylaw changes.  This public hearing was held in order to solicit public comments and was required by Mass. General Law.  Only 7 members of the public attended this meeting.

At this meeting a schematic diagram explaining the proposed changes was handed out and which is shown below:
click diagram to enlarge
The above chart will be presented at the Annual Town Meeting.  Below are some additional comments that were made during the public hearing.
  1. There are approximately 800 corner lots in the town of Longmeadow of which 600 are designated "non-conforming".  In most cases non-conforming lots mean that they do not meet the 40 ft setback from the Street Line or Property Line or Front Lot Line.  Location of any new fences (or substantial modification of an existing fence) must be at least 40 feet from the Street Line

    It was interesting that no member of the Planning Board or Zoning Board of Appeals (who were present) could adequately define what is meant by substantial fence modification which would require a building permit and adherence to the new bylaw no matter when it was originally built.
  2. The new bylaw language allows for home owners to define which "street facing side" of their house is to be considered for the Front Lot line which will determine their Rear Yard (see above diagram for details).
  3. In many cases that were described at the October STM, this new change in the fencing bylaw will not provide significant relief unless it is at least 40 ft from the Street Line.
  4. According to Walter Gunn, PB Chairman, the Longmeadow Building Commissioner/ Inspector (Paul Healey) has reviewed the above diagram and has agreed that it conforms to the language of the proposed bylaw.
This set of zoning bylaw changes will require a 2/3 vote of the Town Meeting. These proposed changes will likely be discussed at a late hour of the Town Meeting.

I believe that this zoning bylaw change should be approved to help provide relief to town residents who are currently facing severe restrictions on the use of their property.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Check Out Alex Grant's Website

My website is the place to connect with the Alex for Select Board campaign, to learn more about me, and to get the skinny on where I stand on Longmeadow town issues.
www.AlexGrantLongmeadow.org

A Better Budget


            Longmeadow is heading for the most contentious budget battle in years.  Strangely enough, the debate is not about whether to raise or lower taxes.  No matter how the vote goes at Town Meeting, no matter which alternative is passed, property taxes are going up the usual 2.5 percent.

            There has been much hand-wringing about the prospect of a "floor fight" at Town Meeting, as if the preferred method of operation were to make the decisions beforehand and then to have them ratified by supine voters in the style of the former U.S.S.R.'s Party Congresses, where loyal communist party members would signal their assent in unison to the prescribed program.  This "floor fight" is nothing more or less than a choice being presented to the voters at Town Meeting, who are, under our town charter, the legislative body.  Making that choice is a matter of the voters doing their job.

            Readers of this space may recall that I have lamented the lack of choice at Town Meeting.  The annual budget, the main order of business, is normally presented in a take-it-or-leave-it fashion.  Or, more accurately, the budget choice is: approve this or face disaster.  The voters at Town Meeting have an aversion for disaster and typically approve what is presented to them.  I have, in years past, suggested that those elected town leaders who are unhappy with the prescribed budget submit an alternative and let the people decide, rather than grumbling on the sidelines.

            This year, the School Committee and other town leaders have wisely opted to let the voters decide whether the budget, narrowly approved 3-2 by the Select Board, or whether a compromise, which has the support of a larger number of our elected officials, should be approved.  The compromise is the better choice.

            The Select Board's budget raises spending on capital by making cuts to town services and to the schools with a zero percent increase for all components of town government, except capital spending.  This "zero budget" means, in real economic terms, a decrease in funding across the board since inflation has made a dollar worth about 2.5 percent less every year for the last few years.  2013 is expected to be the same.

            The issue then is not of taxes, but of allocation.  The cuts instituted by the Select Board budget would be, by the admission of the Select Board itself, painful to town departments that serve seniors and working adults.  This comes at a time when the services provided to seniors, evidenced by the shabby condition of the Senior Center, are hardly abounding.  The cuts will also be painful for children in the schools.

            In the past several years, under the former town manager and with the support of such stalwarts of fiscal rectitude like William Scibelli, Longmeadow has had "level service" budgets.  This meant basically that we wanted to keep things from getting worse in Longmeadow by keeping the level of services the same.  Level service budgets kept pace with inflation with the customary 2.5 percent increases.

            So why are we now suddenly being asked to adopt an austerity town budget?  Three members of the Select Board tell us we need to spend money on "capital."  And yet, the telling moment during the March town budget forum was when the interim town manager admitted that there was no capital plan.  Spending on capital without a plan is not responsible, and it is not frugal.  The plan should come first, and then the spending.

            Spending on capital without a plan simply creates a pot of money that may not be wisely spent.  Spending without a plan, without direction, and without a process for reviewing the efficacy of these expenditures is a recipe for wasting taxpayer dollars.  It was a lack of direction that allowed the Maple Road paving project to start late, to take too long, and to straddle the winter months when paving should not be done.  The result was a mess.  It was a lack of direction that allowed money to be given to DPW in the last year for trees, and then the work ended up being done on overtime.  A boon to DPW employees perhaps, but it was not the most frugal way to get the job done.

            Sacrificing services that have real value in order to engage in a pell-mell rush to spend money on "capital" is not the best way for Longmeadow to move forward.  The compromise is imperfect because it does not remove the austerity onus on services for seniors, and it only mitigates the cuts to education.  But of the two, the compromise is the better budget.

Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow.  His email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com.

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

Frugality


Frugality is a word that rarely enters the debate about government spending at any level.    Instead, voters hear about "unnecessary spending" and the need to eliminate it when annual budgets are out of line.  It always begs the question of, if the spending was unnecessary, why were we doing it in the first place?  And then there are the politicians who aim to balance budgets by eliminating waste, fraud, and abuse, as if waste, fraud, and abuse were OK when times were not so tight.

Politicians who spend tax dollars undertake a solemn responsibility.  Elected officials ought to be as careful with the public's money as they are with their own.  That is the true test for fiscal responsibility.

To make it through college, I grew wild blueberries with my grandfather on a remote parcel of land in Maine.  Keeping costs down meant the difference between making money or not, the difference between attending school in the fall or not.  Frugality meant hoping for rain, and when rain did not come, it meant irrigating the land with a used, and not a new, pump.  It meant buying some odd lots of used pipe that did not fit together, and then blacksmithing some connecting pieces so that our strange collection of mismatched pipe could do the job.

Frugality is a way of doing business, and for households, it is a way of life.  It is my grandmother opening a Christmas present, taking care not to rip the wrapping paper, and then smoothing the paper out, so that it can be used for next year.  Frugality is waiting to buy bread at the Big Y until it is a two-for-one special.  It is buying your paper goods at Target and not CVS.

Frugality is an everyday thing, not an end of the year thing.  It is being mindful of every expenditure, working efficiently, and re-evaluating constantly to make sure nothing is wasted.  Sometimes it is making do with what you have, using a thing until it is broken and beyond repair.  And it is always about taking care of your tools, and not throwing out things that will have value in the future.

Frugality is an easy idea to grasp while eking out a living on your own blueberry field, wood lot, or lobster boat in Maine.  It is easy to understand if you are a senior living on a fixed income.  But a spirit of frugality is harder to maintain across a large organization, when the visceral feeling of reaching into an almost empty pocket at the checkout line is gone.

So frugality also means never spending without a plan.  Blue chip companies with an eye on the bottom line, like GE and Monsanto, set goals, formulate plans, and then review performance to match up the execution of those plans with the goals.  A good company answerable to its shareholders does not allow its money to wander aimlessly from the prescribed path.

Likewise, a good government answerable to the voters is frugal, and it insists on a sound plan before spending any money.  A frugal government does not try to save money by haphazardly drawing lines through a budget spreadsheet at the end of the year, eliminating some programs and positions entirely, and doing nothing to increase the efficiency of other programs and positions.  A frugal government becomes lean the way a smart dieter loses weight, by slowing shedding calories and pounds over time.  Lopping off programs at the end of the year is like trying to lose weight by chopping off a hand.  It accomplishes the short-term goal, but it is destructive in the long run.

In recent years, Longmeadow's annual budget has sometimes sparked discord, and sometimes not.  This year, the rancor has been notable.  But through it all, have we ever looked at our operations, our objectives, and our plans?  Have we looked at the way town government does business, in the manner a management consultant would scrutinize a company seeking to improve its performance?  Have we, with fresh eyes, looked for redundancies, inefficiencies, and ways in which our spending has deviated from our plans, or ways in which spending has proceeded without a plan?

An attentive voter listening to the statements of our town leaders in recent years would have to conclude that every department, down to every last employee, is a model of efficiency.  We just seem to take it for granted in the way that the citizens of Lake Wobegon believe that all of their children are above average.  A frugal government does not indulge in such fantasies.

Alex J. Grant is a lawyer living in Longmeadow.  His email address is alex.grant68@yahoo.com.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

An Open Letter to Longmeadow





The following editorial was featured in the Longmeadow News on March 26, 2013

As residents of Longmeadow, we have heard the phrase “eyes on the child” used to describe the philosophy of the Longmeadow public schools. But what does that mean? To me, and my fellow School Committee members, it means making informed decisions in the best interests of our students and the Longmeadow community. Every vote we take, every policy we approve, every contract we negotiate, is done with students and the community in mind.

As a school committee in Massachusetts, we are legally charged with a very specific set of functions - to set the policy and budget of the school district. Our charge is important, and we take it seriously because we know that the most important investment we can make as a community is in education. But as an elected body representing the community at large, we also have a responsibility to make prudent financial decisions.  With that in mind, when the FY’14 budget was presented by Superintendent Marie Doyle to the School Committee, it featured a total bottom line increase of $604,714, equating to a 1.8% increase over the current fiscal year. This increase includes a 2% cost of living increase as provided in the contracts we negotiated last year with our unions, step increases, and salary advancement for continuing education. Together, these total $794,560.

This next fiscal year, the school district is also facing an increase in the costs of operating our lunch program, as a result of a necessary contractual change with our food service provider.  Based on this change, we had to budget an additional $100,000 to cover any losses we may have in operation of the lunch program.

The most important addition to this budget, however, is to fund key positions to build capacity to serve certain high needs students in district. At the elementary level, we have added a transitional program. This program will enable the district to work with students who have behavioral issues that impact their ability to successfully integrate with the larger school community. Without this program, most of these students would need to be placed in costly out-of district-programs.

The approved budget also includes a new Life Skills program at the High School. This program also allows the district to work more effectively with high needs students, teaching them important life skills that prepare them for independence outside of school. Without the addition of these two programs, the district would be faced with bills for out-of-district tuition for between $200,000 and $400,000.

In an effort to limit the amount of FY '14 increases, the budget approved by the School Committee also includes more than $700,000 of carefully considered reductions from the FY'13 budget.

Ultimately, the budget as approved by the School Committee and presented to the Select Board for inclusion in the Town's FY 14 budget totals the amount necessary to fulfill the mission of the school district as set forth in its strategic plan. The School Committee also understands that we do not budget or operate in a vacuum. We understand that the Select Board has different priorities than we do and our continual budgetary debates are a result of those differences.

Yet, notwithstanding multiple sessions during which members of the School Committee and representatives from the school district have repeatedly answered all questions thoughtfully and completely, the Select Board has approved a Town budget that includes a 0% increase, and in fact a reduction of $90,000 from our FY’13 budget, resulting in an overall reduction of $706,000 from our approved FY 14 budget.

This presents us with a devastating budget scenario that we simply cannot support. Approval of the Select Board's budget at Town Meeting will result in actual positions being cut, and the impact to students will be real.  The district will have to reduce up to 15 positions, including some classroom teachers. Class sizes will necessarily increase and the student achievement levels the district has worked hard to increase will be put at risk.

Our fervent hope is that there exists a fair compromise position between the budgets as approved by the Select Board and the School Committee. To this end the School Committee has made a number of overtures to the Select Board seeking a compromise. More recently, members of the Select Board and School Committee have begun to enter into direct negotiations to reach a compromise. These negotiations, however, carry with them no guarantee that a majority of Select Board members would support what ever compromise budget is proposed. 

As a result of this uncertainty, the School Committee believes that should a compromise not be reached between boards, it will be necessary for us to offer an amendment to the Select Board's budget on the floor of Town Meeting. We recognize the impact that this would have on the entire community and we see this option as a last resort.

It is our duty as representatives elected by the residents of Longmeadow to advocate for a budget that enables the school district to continue to deliver the excellent educational opportunities our community has come to expect. In this case, we believe that our approved budget is not excessive and very appropriate.
Thank you for the opportunity to inform the residents of Longmeadow as to the status of the FY 14 budget for the Longmeadow Public Schools.

Update: As of Tuesday, April 16, 2013 the Longmeadow Select Board voted to not accept the compromise negotiated with the School Committee. As a result, the School Committee has no option other than to offer an amendment on the floor of Town Meeting. In keeping with our commitment to the community, the School Committee will offer amendments that replicate the compromise budget.


Sincerely,
Michael Clark
Chair, Longmeadow School Committee